With actors suited to roles, play is a moving revelation

`To Gillian' tells tale of man who is unable to accept wife's death

Arundel Live

September 06, 2001|By Mary Johnson | Mary Johnson,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

With Michael Brady's To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday, Colonial Players opens its 53rd season by exploring a profound topic that eventually touches us all: coping with the death of a loved one. Set at a beach cottage at the end of summer, the company's September run couldn't have been better timed.

Brady's first major work, To Gillian, appeared off-Broadway in 1983 and later was made into a moderately successful 1996 movie, available on video, starring Michelle Pfeiffer and Peter Gallagher.

Despite a Hollywood-scale budget and a pair of superstars, the film lacks the subtlety and sensitivity of Colonial Players' version.

The play is the moving revelation of widower David's complex grieving and his inability to accept the death two years earlier of his 35-year-old wife, Gillian.

David spends evenings conversing with her on the beach, causing problems for his daughter Rachel. David's strained relationship with Rachel is central to the action, precipitating problems with other characters in the drama.

Through David's conversations with Gillian, we get to know her and observe the closeness of their relationship, as well as the extent that David has withdrawn from reality.

Rachel pleads with her father to get on with his life, as does his sister-in-law, Esther, and her husband, Paul, visiting on this weekend that marks Gillian's 37th birthday and the second anniversary of her death in a boating accident.

Paul and Esther try to bring David back to reality by inviting Kevin for the weekend. Although Kevin admits to being "in the market for a man," she is shocked at the couple's crassness in inviting her on this emotion-charged weekend. The most direct and least complex character in the play, Kevin soon establishes a friendship with Rachel and with Rachel's friend Cindy, who has a crush on David.

The performances make the audience care about this weak, self-pitying man who forgets his daughter and sympathize with Esther, who is bitter and cruelly insensitive, and with the Lolita-like Cindy's attachment to David.

The actors are well suited to their roles, including Nancy Fulton as Esther, seeming able to make her grow. As her husband, Paul, Joe Del Balzo enjoys his character's grossness, providing much-needed humor while revealing Paul's human warmth. Kate Wheeler's Kevin is an interesting combination of directness and sensitivity.

Colonial Players director Michael Gilles demonstrates enough sensitivity and skill to makes us ache for each character without crossing the line to maudlin.

Gilles selected superb actors who convey understated emotion, and he choreographed movement among Gillian and her husband, daughter and sister to transform her into each character's guardian angel.

Gilles' elegant musical taste is apparent in his selection of the hauntingly beautiful and mystical songs sung by the late Maryland native and Annapolis performer Eva Cassidy, who died of melanoma at age 33, not much younger than Gillian.

In a stellar cast, several shine brightly. As Gillian, Jennifer Lusko-Kucharski gives a moving portrayal, circling around Jessica Kaplan's Rachel, expressing her love for her daughter in whispered movements, skimming her arms and shoulders without touching her.

This Gillian, two years dead, moves in carefully choreographed steps that are far from any danse macabre, but a dance that expresses a high level of caring.

She is brilliant with Esther, who is also powerful as she drops her bitter defenses in their sister dance. The restrained affection she shows toward Richard McGraw's David is intense.

In the difficult and sometimes unsympathetic role of David, McGraw grows from initially weighed down by the dialogue-heavy script to revealing the complexities in this once-reliable professor whose pain has turned him into a recluse.

When these grieving, lonely and tortured characters come together to deal with death, they become a warm testament to life.

To Gillian will remain at Colonial Players Theater, 108 East St., through Sept. 29. Tickets: 410- 268-7373.

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